Photo by zargoman

The other day, I was taking a 554 back to the Eastside when I discovered that I was onboard one of those pesky early afternoon trips with a mid-line operator relief at Mercer Island.  Judging from my past experiences with that trip, I wasn’t too bothered– for the most part, East Base operators are pretty good at switching in and out while the bus is still service.  This time around, however, the relief operator was nowhere in sight, ruffling more than a few passengers’ feathers.

While the relief operator did end up arriving about 5 minutes later, my experience exposed a rather significant disadvantage with having drivers relieve each other mid-line.  Though I don’t think instances of missing operators are too common, mid-line reliefs can be wildly unpredictable.  Sometimes, drivers will exchange keys and go.  Other times, they might strike up some chit-chat first.  And there are those occasional instances when a relief operator is nowhere to be found, keeping the driver on the clock and passengers on the bus longer than expected.

When operator work is scheduled and runcutted, relief points are worked in for maximum efficiency from a labor standpoint.  That, of course, can sometimes conflict with the system efficiency of in-service routes.  A poorly scheduled PM peak road relief on 3rd & Pike, for example, could easily logjam the Third Ave corridor, impacting buses going to and from places all over the region.  Of course, the best places and times to sneak in operator reliefs are those with little or no impact on revenue service, i.e., route terminals or during pulses at major transit centers.

Although I certainly don’t dispute that maximizing labor and wage efficiencies are vital scheduling considerations, I think keeping our transit vehicles operating free and undistracted should be priority number one, even if it means eliminating mid-line operator reliefs entirely.

54 Replies to “Mid-Line Operator Reliefs”

  1. Straight up disagree. It’s annoying, sure, but it generally happens during off-peak times (11a, 1:30p, 8p) that affect the minimum of riders. This is one of the easy ways to save money that should stick around, even with potential unpredictability.

    1. +1

      Limiting the relief points to route termini means more overtime, and more tired operators. That’s not safety.

      It also means longer drives for operators in Metro cars, a need to increase the Metro car fleet (especially when operators were heretofore walking or riding the train to the relief point), possibly a need to increase the bus fleet, and a non-insubstantial carbon footprint.

      I say NOOO to reducing Metro’s options for operator relief points.

  2. The chit chat is sometimes necessary as there might be some issues with the bus or route that needs to be shared with the new driver

    1. The chit chat is a regular occurence on the northbound 132 just north of Stadium Station. I don’t mind having the operators pass off info. I don’t mind the driver taking time to readjust the seat and mirrors, and do other safety checks. I also don’t mind separating the chit chat from the safety tasks.

      I’ve never witnessed the chit-chat taking more than a minute.

  3. I’ve witnessed plenty of driver changes, mostly on Link and the 132. A week ago, the relief driver on the 358 was a minute or two late (in Shoreline, southbound). The driver immediately got on the phoneset and called base. The relief driver pulled up in front as they were still talking. This has been my only experience I can remember when the baton was dropped.

    The 358 was having serious bunching issues that day. The dropped baton was a tiny problem in the grand scheme of scheduling problems for those 358 operators.

    Metro operators do an outstanding job at passing the baton, IMHO.

    My only request to operators is to ask your union reps to relent on allowing *fare inspectors* (unionized, I hope?) to be ORCA boarding assistants. Help us help you improve scheduling and make it easier to get breaks by keeping operators behind the wheel and putting ORCA tappers in the hands of people whom Metro could thereby afford to hire a lot more of.

    1. Thanks for bringing up “loaders”, Brent. However, What I’d most like to see from ATU Local 587 regarding operating efficiency is participation in a sustained campaign to bring an end to the use of bus fare-boxes in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel.

      Since proof-of-payment requires fare inspectors, I would like to see the people already doing this work hired to public employment and represented by Local 587. The operators presently assigned to rear-door ORCA-reading would be better employed assisting with passenger information and wheelchair-assist.

      As to costs, let’s see the balance sheet on added service time and delayed service resulting from last fall’s addition of those fare-boxes to the Tunnel. Efficiency often pays for itself.

      Mark Dublin

      1. What’s wrong with putting some turnstiles at the top of the stairs in the transit tunnel: e.g. make it a real fare-paid zone? SFMuni does that for their end of the shared Market Street stations. It’s not a huge inconvenience to tap at at turnstile.

      2. One big problem is that the turnstile would not know how much to charge for whatever ride you might take. Metro 1 & 2 zone fares, ST Express and ST Link fares are all different. The on platform loaders charge according to which bus you’re getting on. The ORCA validators on the mezzanine or on the platform assume a Link fare.

  4. I’ve only experienced this on Link. Is it mostly avoided on Metro routes, and confined to ST?

    1. Lots of downtown routes have mid-line relief points. Jackson St & 5th is one that I’ve done many times but there are other examples of relief points that are also very busy bus stops. Jackson & 5th is the closest in terms of travel time, which I believe is calculated using walking distance from the base.

    2. No, at the very least Metro 330, 372, 522 do their mid-point switches at the Fred Meyer at 130th and Lake City (and it also nicely doubles as layover for the 65 and 41).

    3. I’ve seen the 21 switch drivers on 4th, I think at Royal Brougham, and I’ve seen the 255 switch at South Kirkland P&R. I live in Fremont and I’ve never seen a switch on any of my local routes, probably because there aren’t any bases along them (well, apparently the 358 switches near North Base, but I’m not up there all that often), and the same might apply to Summit. I bet there used to be operator switches near Seattle Center back when there was a bus base there.

      I’ll echo some other comments here that none of the operator reliefs I’ve seen have taken much time. I bet we waste way more time at the entrances to the DSTT.

      1. Your downtown routes in Fremont all have road reliefs on the other side of downtown. The 26/28/131/132 have reliefs at 4th and Royal Brougham/Edgar Martinez. The 40 lays over at Central Base and has road reliefs there, at its terminal.

        The 31/32/65/75 can have road reliefs either at Campus Parkway or at their Northgate/Lake City terminals, depending on which one is easier for scheduling.

      2. I’ve experienced a handful of RapidRide road reliefs that have been no trouble at all, and two or three that have been death.

        Nevertheless, if you wish to avoid the impression of lackadaisical operations, the bus with the word “rapid” on the side might be a good place to start.

  5. Like many skills of transit-driving,road-relief is a matter of experience, training, and attitude. It’s much the same as with coach-handling maneuvers including accelerating, and changing lanes: a driver needs to develop early the habit of practicing each move to achieve the smoothest result.

    I wonder if Instruction includes road-relief drill? If not, might be worth training time. Especially since there’s a good chance that many passengers already aboard the bus will form a strong impression of the driver’s general quality while watching how gracefully the relief is handled.

    Mark Dublin

    1. We can converse more on an open thread about the fare and union issues. I have seen propaganda floating around asking people to contact the county council to ask them to tell Metro to fix the schedules. I believe this effort is coming out of ATU. ATU is definitely a partner in improving schedules.

    2. “I wonder if Instruction includes road-relief drill?”

      Not as of my training in 2006, but I do recall a classroom session discussing the subject.

    3. I never had any instruction (2000-2005) on road relief drill.

      After some experience, it took me about 2 minutes to set the seat and steering wheel, set all the mirrors, and sign into the radio and farebox. Everything else other than those steps could wait until the next terminal.

      1. Aren’t we technically supposed to be doing s full pre-trip before getting back into service?

      2. When I was there, The Book provided that you could do the inspection at the next terminal and call the coordinator if you discovered damage.

  6. East base reliefs are done entirely using base cars. As such, there is the added possibility of delays due to traffic, flat tire, or other car related problem. As you note it’s rare (VM does a good job of keeping the cars maintained/fueled), but it does happen.

    Downtown based routes, OTOH, are more often relieved by drivers on foot. (mostly? – I don’t recall ever using a base car downtown) As an added cost savings measure, once we’re off the bus, we’re off the clock unless we have some reason we need to return to the base for a work related item – Lost and found items are one example. It’s also more reliable since we can comfortably walk to most of the relief points or take buses or Link. Drivers in base cars are paid until we return to the base.

    1. There are a few downtown-based routes that use base cars for reliefs. The 48 and 44 runs that don’t have 43 trips at midday are the ones that come to mind.

      1. I’ve seen driver switches on the #11 at 4th and Pine westbound by The Bon on several occasions since the dreaded #125 was lopped of the #11.

  7. I guess I’ve been lucky, whenever I’ve been on a bus with a shift change in the middle of the route, the relief operator has always been waiting at the stop.

    1. Do SLUS operators change vans in the middle of the route, or is it really just the layover period?

  8. There are not that many relief points at crowded stops in the middle of downtown. 5th and Jackson for the 7/14/36 is one, and 3rd and Pike for northbound RR Ds is another. But most of the downtown relief points are away from the main thoroughfares: Columbia/2nd, Seneca/4th, Spring/4th, James/3rd, Pike/2nd (a layover zone). The operational efficiencies road reliefs allow are *huge*.

  9. So, instead of having the new driver drive his car to East Base, then have a Metro employee drive him to Mercer Island, why can’t he just take over the bus downtown instead during the normal layover period? I don’t see why the driver has to touch East Base on the way to or from his bus.

    1. Ok, thinking about the problem some more, I think I can see what is going on. If the new driver is taking over the bus in the middle of the afternoon, he will probably be the one who will be driving the bus back to East Base in the evening when the bus goes out of service for the night. Somehow, the driver has to get himself home from the base, even though the transit network is extremely skeletal by this time and doesn’t serve the base when it does run (except deadheads). So, the driver has to have a car parked at the base in order to get home, which means he has to go by the base before the start of his shift, in for no other reason, to drop off his car.

      1. Also, the driver has to sign in, to let the window person know that he’s there and there is no need to rustle up another operator to do the work.

        I did one regular piece of work that was road reliefs downtown on both ends, but I still had to make my way down to Atlantic Base to sign in.

      2. In Vancouver BC, operators proceed directly to the relief point and do not sign in at the base.

        If someone no shows / is late for work, the first time the transit agency is aware of it is when the operator reports “no relief” to the control center. They then have to send a report/extra board operator to the bus and the operator must proceed until relieved.

      3. The laws are different in BC. Here, a responsible person has to observe the operator’s fitness for duty.

      4. Brent –

        What law are you referencing? Transit agencies are overseen by the FTA and the rules and regulations are generally more relaxed than those of the FMCSA which regulates private motor carriers.

        And trust me, many many private trucking and bus companies have operators reporting to closed offices or offsite yards where no dispatcher or manager is present.

        Why would this law apply only to transit operators? There certainly is no requirement for private motor carrier drivers.

      5. No such law. Not all road reliefs require a sign in. The second part of a combo that starts only an hour after the first relief for example. I be live that its more a question of being able to dispatch a relief to the relief location on time.

  10. Talk about making a mountain out of mole hill complaining about the road relief of drivers on a route. So there may be a minute or two delay but what is the big deal. Get a grip on reality. How else do you expect Metro etc… to operate without this happening.

    Oh and by the way I do ride the light rail and on occasion there is an operator switch near the Sodo Station and it doesn’t take that long to do it.

    1. Actually, I have sometimes seen the driver switch take as much as 5 minutes, not 2 minutes. Nevertheless, I agree – most of the time, it’s not a big deal, but if the small delay, coupled with a couple of other small delays causes you to miss a connection later on, it suddenly becomes a huge deal. Especially if you are connecting between two hourly buses.

    1. And still I manage to reach for my car keys about half the time I approach a bus. :)

    2. Really? So, when the driver is going to the bathroom during a layover, anybody can just open up the bus, walk it, sit in the driver’s seat, and drive away? I have an extremely hard time believing this.

      1. You could walk right on to a couple of bases and do it. No, buses don’t have keys. I doubt you’d get too far though.

      2. Yep, no problem. It would require people to know how to operate a bus, though. Very few of the addicts and crazy people who would do such a thing would ever have been in a position to learn.

        Driving a transit bus is not difficult but the procedures to start it and get it moving are slightly different from those you would find in a personal car.

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